Chapter 2: Late February Sunday Night - Dissipation & Despair by A.J. Hall
The rhythmic pulse of agony nailed down over Caitlin’s left eye was currently assuming such a large role in her consciousness that she briefly considered giving it a name.
Hello. Meet Diabolo. He’s my god-awful headache. He lives in my skull - yes, just where that dent is. He likes skulking just behind the eyebrow. From time to time he sends out exploring parties into the rest of my brain. Armed only with red-hot wires.
Nausea threatened to overcome her. She gulped, uneasily, and scrabbled at the top drawer of her bureau. Her fingers closed with infinite relief over the cool smooth cardboard of the paracetamol packet, before her exploring fingers revealed that it was flat: the bubble pack, evidently, empty.
Her brain worked rapidly through the options. Elise - well, with her typical cool German efficiency she would be bound to have something in her room, but today was her day off, and since she’d met - what was his name? Edward - she would undoubtedly not be back before midnight. By which time - Caitlin shuddered.
It was only the second night of the Creative Fantasy Writing Course which she had - how ironic that seemed now - been so relieved was going to fill the guesthouse in one of the most fallow of off-seasons she had ever experienced. She snorted with bitterness, and then winced as it set her head pounding afresh.
Yesterday - trying as it had been, kicking off with the great name badges fiasco (“But - how can they all have the wrong names on? We simply took them all off the cheques and credit cards they used to pay for the course.” “Well - silly us. Those must have been their real names. Fancy us forgetting to ask them to tell us their noms de plume before we made up the badges”) had been just about survivable. Today, as the delegates got into their stride and lost their initial inhibitions, had been unspeakable.
And there are still twelve whole days to go.
And undoubtedly, since it was still so early in the course, she would have to appear this evening and be charming for pre-dinner drinks. In - she checked her wristwatch, and winced - no more than forty minutes from now.
She screwed up the empty paracetamol packet and hurled it at the bin, calculating other possibilities furiously.
The twins - Rose and Sue - well, they were probably around somewhere, but any girls who could celebrate their eighteenth birthday by blithely sinking pint upon pint of the Rose & Crown’s roughest scrumpy with Black Russian chasers, and then still be chirpily on duty at 6:45 the next morning probably regarded proprietary headache remedies as about as fabulous as unicorns.
She paused, momentarily.
Assuming, of course, that unicorns really are fabulous.
She shrugged off that thought almost before it had formed, and concentrated on practical solutions. She ruled out, instantly, the idea of venturing to the kitchen. Things would be in full swing for supper by now, and the sudden presence of the owner in the delicately balanced mechanism that produced superb food day in, day out from the kitchens would be gratuitously to introduce grit into the finest clockwork. Not even her own health or sanity justified the risk.
She groaned. There was only one thing to do. And she hated the very thought of it.
There were four of the guests in the residents’ sitting room when she ventured inside, her professional smile fixed firmly on her features. The little round-faced Scot with the bobbed black hair looked up at her entrance. Kivren , she reminded herself , despite the name badge that proclaimed Kirsty MacDonald in the annoyingly twee Mockingtosh typeface which Alan, the soi-disant course docent, had insisted on using.
“Hello, Mrs Naismith,” she murmured in a furry, rolling burr.
Caitlin gave her a quick glance, and tried conscientiously not to be prejudiced by the somewhat confused spiritual signals conveyed by Kivren’s ankh and pentacle pendants, crystal earrings and silver thumb ring depicting a snake eating its own tail.
“Caitlin, please. Hello. I hope you’ve all been made comfortable? And did your first full session go well?”
Cathy Jackson gave her an affronted stare, as though it was somehow impertinent of her to ask. Caitlin, who had had more years experience than she cared to count in dealing with the arrogant expectations of a sizeable minority of the punters, avoided having to take notice of the look, by turning strategically to address the woman she had summed up yesterday as one of the more reliable of a rackety bunch, despite her somewhat unsympathetic personal style.
“I wondered - ah - Lucy - if I could possibly ask a huge favour? I’ve got just a touch of headache, and I wondered if you might happen to have a couple of paracetamol I could scrounge off you? I’ll replace them in the morning, when the village shop opens.”
Lucy Moore looked up. Charitably, Caitlin tried not to estimate how much of her headache was owing to Lucy’s post Communion rant about the conduct of the service (“non-stop bells and smells - why doesn’t he just go over to Rome if he’s so in love with the ritual?”), the content of the sermon (“obviously one of these trendy lefties with a small pinkish piece of blotting paper where his conscience ought to be”) and the heating in St Sebastian’s Church (“Antarctic - have they never heard of a boiler house in these parts?”) all of which she appeared to regard Caitlin as having both a moral and contractual duty to fix before next Sunday.
“If you’ll forgive my saying so, you’d be a lot better off sticking it out, and not just reaching for a packet of drugs at the first hint of discomfort.”
Caitlin fixed her artificial smile firmly on her lips.
Always remember: it’s the Early Christian gets the hungriest lion.
Cathy’s eyes glittered. “Oh, that seems unduly judgmental, Lucy. I’m no enthusiast for factory-made chemical garbage myself - and even commercial herbalists - unless you know them really well - aren’t all that reliable either - but I’ve been compiling my own natural remedies for years, and with a bit of trial and error I’ve come across some surprisingly effective ones. An infusion of freshly gathered willow-bark, now, would do her the world of good.”
Caitlin suppressed a shudder. Obliviously, Cathy continued on. “Unfortunately, I’ve just run out. I was planning a walk down besides the river this afternoon to collect some more, but since the session over-ran - oh, I’m sure no-one thought it was your fault, Kivren, dear - I’m fresh out of it until tomorrow.”
“Well, if I may be frank, Catherine, that’s just sheer self delusion. You only feel better after taking one of your quackish concoctions because you convince yourself that you’re going to. And gathering them yourself - that’s just asking for trouble. We always were most firm at the School with the girls when we had nature rambles: even our prep classes knew not to put anything in their mouths which hadn’t been properly identified by the Biology Mistress, and washed thoroughly.”
She reached for her small neat patent leather handbag, and unsnapped the gilt clasp. With a faint sense of rueful amusement, Caitlin realised that she had obviously been promoted to lesser of the two evils.
“Will aspirin do?”
Caitlin shook her head. “Thanks, but - I’ve been told not to. I don’t suppose anyone else -?”
She surveyed the group with ebbing hope. Her no-doubt desperate expression seemed to spark some faint desire to be useful in them.
“Would this be any use?” Nicci asked hopefully, holding out a bottle of - Caitlin tried very hard not to recoil in shock - some thick grey-green sludge. She read the label with half-horrified fascination. The truly all-natural first combined herbal soporific and laxative, it read, perversely. She shook her head, in an effort to dispel the image that it conjured up, and instantly regretted it.
“Ah, Nicci? Do you take - ah - that stuff often?”
And - ah - if so, does it work? And who washes the sheets afterwards?
Nicci looked faintly blank. “Oh, no. I’ve never tried it. But someone in one of my chat-rooms swore by it, so I thought it was worth getting some on the off-chance.” She frowned, looking at the label again. “But it doesn’t seem to say anything about headaches, I suppose.”
“No. Well, then, perhaps not. Ah, er, well, thanks anyway.”
There was a slight creaking noise. Kivren, who was self-evidently saying rather less than she might to Cathy, looked up towards the door, an expression of relief on her face. “Jacqueline! You don’t happen to have any paracetamol on you, do you? Poor Caitlin’s got a headache, and Lucy offered her aspirin, but she apparently can’t take it.”
The new arrival was already rummaging in her black handbag. “Should have something,” she said briskly. “Why not aspirin? Allergy or ulcers?”
“Ulcers.” Her face furrowed. “As my doctor says, one of the lesser known side effects of BSE.”
Jacqueline’s finely arched brows rose in amusement as she took the point. She extracted a small packet from her bag. “Here. You should be OK with these, then. Don’t bother to give me them back, I’ve got another packet.”
Muttering in gratitude, Caitlin made her escape back to the temporary peace of her sitting room.
“Fifteen minutes, people,” Alan said, ” But don’t over-run. We made cracking progress yesterday and in this morning’s session on the character, plot and setting matrices, but we’ve got a long way to do. And don’t forget, we’ve got the first of our trips out this evening, so the final session this afternoon is going to be a short one.”
Their limbs cramped with long sitting, the course participants made their several ways out into the guesthouse.
“Could we have a word?”
Julian Garrowby’s tone did not, actually, make that much of a question; more an unquestioned assumption that Alan could hardly have anything better to do at any time of the day or night than listen to him expostulate.
Reluctantly, Alan, who had been praying for nothing more than an opportunity to get away on his own and think - preferably with a stiff vodka-tonic to hand - ever since the moment during the interminable morning’s session since he had spotted the letter among his papers, turned with an expression of artificial attentiveness, his hand resting nonchalantly in his pocket.
Unconsciously, his fingers encountered the roughly pasted together sheet of paper that he had screwed up and thrust in there for later consideration. The words on it, briefly as he had seen them, needed no re-reading: he remembered them perfectly.
You may think you’ve gotten away with it, but we know all about you.
Followed by a well chosen few words, still in the same ersatz American (the style critic in his brain recognised it as a sophisticated updating of the traditional fake-bad spelling to obscure identity), sufficient to indicate that while the anonymous author might be being a trifle optimistic in that assertion, at least he or she knew enough with enough specificity to make his life not - wholly worth the living.
His mind squirreled frantically around inside itself.
Which of them?
It was almost a relief to catch sight, eventually, of Julian’s expression of faintly baffled superciliousness. Consciously, Alan tore himself back to the matter at hand.
“I’m sorry. Miles away. What was it you wanted to talk to me about?”
Julian’s long forefinger tapped emphatically on something that Alan recognised as the assignment he had handed out at lunchtime.
“This. I really can’t be expected to do this.”
It was, briefly, refreshing to be able to turn himself to his proper job, and in an area where he was so unequivocally right, too. Not that Julian was likely to agree: his expression combined serene absence of self-examination coupled with tolerance for the mistakes of others, which struck Alan as reminiscent of one waiting without apprehension at the Pearly Gates for St Peter to admit to the mix up and accept his admission papers. He felt a small mean flicker of pleasure as he made his face deliberately uncomprehending and said:
Julian exhaled. “You’ve asked me to write a scene from the point of view of the heroine’s bodyguard -“
“Gunnar Gunnarssen, yes.”
Julian gestured in frustration. “How on earth am I supposed to get into the head of someone like that? Just look at the character matrix. He’s a captain of mercenaries, he’s a retired assassin - and proud of it -“
“Very skilled job, covert assassination, I’m sure,” Alan murmured. Julian continued, disregarding.
“He’s semi-literate - at best -”
“With an encyclopaedic knowledge of bawdy drinking songs and the fruitier incidents from the Sagas, you’ve got to admit,” Alan put in. His own misery of the morning was eased, slightly, by seeing Julian’s frustration showing through. Refusal to accommodate the delegate’s whining supported him: gave him more of a sense of who he was.
Surely you mean, who you were? A traitorous voice echoed in the back of his mind.
“Oh, really! You aren’t taking my perfectly valid objections seriously. And as for the scene you’ve given me to write - You know, I’d almost think you were playing games deliberately -“
He bent over the paper and read, in a high, over-emphatic tone, putting a sneer into his voice as he did so:
“Night. An Inn on the Road. Disguised as a boy and on her way to join the Quest, Sylvania Starjewel, princess of the lost line of Atlantis, has been provoked into a fight by a group of rough country lads, egged on by a couple of the Diabolical Duke’s arms men. This forces Gunnar Gunnarssen to intervene to rescue her. His intervention decides the fight in short order, and he takes her to his own room to bandage her wounds. She forces him to admit he has in fact been hired by the priestesses who brought her up to follow her covertly and protect her on the road. He expresses his deep resentment in having been reduced to taking a contract with the priestesses of the Goddess - whose faith is the antithesis, he believes, of his simple fighting creed - in order to protect a rash girl from the consequences of her own folly. She, in turn, accuses him of butting in to a fight she had all but won because of his preconceptions about her feminine worthlessness. He expresses all the contempt he feels as a Northlander for “woman-whipped Atlantis” and for the Goddess to whom a sizeable minority of the Atlanteans remain loyal. Sylvania orders him from the room.
He returns to the taproom of the Inn, forgetting, momentarily, that he is still wearing his Atlantean disguise. One of the bystanders of the fight mocks him, attributing his gratuitous intervention to protect a personable young man, and their vanishing upstairs together to the traditional reputation of effeminacy afforded to Atlantean men by those of the mainland. In his fury at this slur on his manhood and forgetting, momentarily, the Quest and his contract he challenges the bystander in robust terms, almost betraying Sylvania’s identity until a chance phrase recalls him to his duty and he retrieves the situation as far as possible.”
Julian broke off, took a deep breath, assumed a martyred expression and said, “How on earth am I expected to get inside of the head of someone like that? I don’t have a single point of reference - nothing where I can get a handle on what could possibly make someone like that tick. And just look what you’re asking me to do:
Write the scene in the taproom, and so much of the preceding scene in the bedroom as is necessary, from the point of view of Gunnarssen, establishing him as larger than life but human, a sympathetic if flawed figure, and laying credible groundwork for the character and plotting development planned for later chapters.
How am I possibly supposed to make a sexist, homophobic uneducated oaf like that sympathetic? In fact, I’ve got a problem here, Alan, about whether as a responsible writer I actually ought to try to do that. If people like that are portrayed as sympathetic, it sends all sorts of wrong signals to the less sophisticated readership.”
Plato’s Republic is alive and living in Julian’s head, Alan thought irrepressibly, before schooling his features into the appropriate expression for someone recognising a fair but, on mature reflection, not wholly convincing point.
“Well, I understand exactly where you’re coming from, Julian,” he said, “But may I speak frankly here?”
His choice of words suddenly resonated in his head, bringing back a memory he had buried under layers of denial. The Dean of the Faculty eyeing him over his half-moon glasses, and saying:
“If I may speak frankly, Alan, you may have won the battle but you seem to be losing the war. And certainly the struggle for hearts and minds seems to be turning against you. In your place I’d seriously consider, Alan, giving careful thought - in your own best interests - as to how long your position here can remain tenable.”
His fingers, groping blindly into his pocket, encountered the rough texture of the anonymous letter again. He exhaled, thrusting memories and doubt back inside himself.
“When I asked delegates to supply samples of their work to date - and I must say, Julian, I hadn’t quite expected to get a complete novel -“
Julian emitted a little giggle. “Well, I was in two minds about which bits to send you. And I then thought you wouldn’t really get any sense at all about what I was trying to do with the cycle unless you could see one complete element of it. It’s a very precisely engineered concept - well, in a wholly organic way, naturally. As I explained in my covering letter, I’ve counter-poised the four-book sub-cycle which is based on the natural rhythms of the seasons with a second four book sub-cycle themed on the artificially imposed Festivals of the Christian Church - I see the Morgana cycle very much as a roman fleuve -“
Well, actually, given the sluggishness of the narrative pace and the rather unpleasant things I kept stumbling across in the few pages I could bear to read, I’d think of it more as a roman cloaque -
Alan kept any hint of his private judgment out of his expression.
“Yes, I certainly picked up on the fact that expressing a very consistent moral vision was very important to you. But - if you’ll forgive my saying so - I felt in some respects the very clarity of your underlying purpose was at odds with the narrative tension.”
Julian put his head slightly on one side. Alan gauged his expression as that of a man taking a time out to pay conscientious attention to the notion that he might be wrong, before resuming his initial opinion. He suppressed the urge to snap, ferociously.
This may be a make-weight job with students who aren’t going anywhere and don’t even seem to care if they get any better, just to have their private opinions of their own genius reinforced. But I’m a teacher, and I’m bloody well going to teach, despite the students.
“All I’m saying is that if the characters who are expressing the points of view you find distasteful simply come over as mouth-pieces - men of straw you’ve set up so as to knock down later - then you’ll actually be less successful than you want to be in accomplishing your purposes. Readers don’t like being lectured to, you know. Anyway, this is only an exercise. Think about it. Have a try at doing Gunnarssen. I really think, Julian, if you’ll work at it you might surprise yourself. To say nothing of the rest of us. Anyway, now you’ve got that off your chest, we’ve only got a couple of minutes, and I could really use a cup of coffee.”
He turned decisively away towards the smell of coffee. Behind him, he could hear Julian bleating something, but he didn’t turn back to respond. His fingers closed over the letter in his pocket again. Self-loathing for having let himself become the kind of person who could have such things said of him in truth rose up like acid vomit in his throat. Conscious, even now, of the irony that he could only express his tragedy in another’s words - had that disability, perhaps, been at the heart of all the fudge, all the tiny false steps that had inevitably brought him to disaster? - he could hear a voice in his head, final, like an epitaph.
Once, I was a scholar.
Caitlin, through the serving hatch, took a quick look at the dining room. The guests were making their way through the broccoli soup (except Julian Garrowby, who apparently had a congenital sensitivity to brassicas, and was having French onion; Nicci, whose current diet apparently prevented her combining more than three separate sorts of vegetables within twelve hours of each other, who was eating Ken’s bread roll; and Áine Connolly, who had not yet managed to make it down to supper, presumably because she was still changing for the evening ahead). She decided that they were sufficiently occupied to make it worthwhile for her to make a quick trip round the rest of her domain without being disturbed.
Alan had given instructions that the conference room should be locked up each evening with the white boards, flip-charts and planning tools all left in situ, but Caitlin’s concerns about her staff’s ability to clean around as opposed to away made the room’s condition a constant nagging ache.
She was, however, relieved to notice that the room was in practically pristine condition. It was only when she was turning away that she noticed a screwed up sheet of paper, apparently discarded under a desk.
She picked it up. The opening lines caught her eye.
The instruments were set out in their proper order on the bench. The tongs had faded somewhat from the red-hot perfection in which they had come from the fire, but heat still radiated fiercely off them. The barbed spikes of the boot gleamed where they had been freshly sharpened.
“Now,” the disembodied voice purred, “Comes the time for you to realise how mistaken you were to oppose me.”
The remainder was only a few paragraphs of word-processed output, which Caitlin scanned rapidly. And shuddered, inwardly. She had spent most of her life arguing against censorship, and still held by her principles. Nevertheless, she had rather that what she read on the page had not been written. It fastened itself into hidden corners of her mind, and its images wavered before her eyes, intruding itself between her and the world like an oily smoke.
Someone in this house is in love with torture.
She re-read it, and then, with a sudden sense of unease at leaving the thing around, put the sheet in her pocket, carrying it away to her sitting room to burn on the aromatic wood of her fire. And in her imagination the paper gave off an acrid stink as it burned.
Caitlin was aware that she had, that evening, consciously used the green baize door which closed off her office from the public part of the guesthouse - not for the first time - as a defensive barrier between her and the guests. She sighed, wondering whether it was a sign of advancing middle age that her patience with the punters - most of who were now significantly younger than she was - was wearing so thin these days. Or maybe it was the climate affecting her.
Her ear cocked up as the doorbell rang. Her lips curved into a grin of pleasure as she caught, amid the sounds of the new arrival being let in, an unmistakable light drawl. Whatever else that voice heralded, the rest of the evening was assuredly not going to be dull.
She was already saying: “Come in,” by the time the arrogant rap sounded on the door.
He entered the sitting room, dropping his padded jacket over the back of a chair in one easy, self-assured movement. It amused her, momentarily, seeing him make himself at home so instantaneously, remembering his edgy awkwardness the first time she’d seen him in this room.
“So, what can I do for you?” she asked, reaching automatically for the herbal tea sachets and the electric kettle. Draco raised an eyebrow.
“Bit of an assumption, isn’t it?” he drawled. Caitlin shook her head.
“No, not really. Don’t forget, I’ve brought up two sons. And I’ve known you for well over a year, now, too. I can tell the difference between dropping in for a chat and trying to talk something out of me at fifty paces.”
He bobbed his head in a brief, acknowledging nod. “Well, you are partly right. I was passing anyway, but I did want to have a word with you. About - er - “the servant problem”. “
She raised an eyebrow. His voice, self-consciously, had put the phrase into inverted commas, and there was nothing about his customary light tone to suggest that there was anything special at stake, but his long fingers were betraying him, twisting ceaselessly around each other.
She pretended to have noticed nothing, and made her voice dry.
“The servant problem? How eminently Victorian of you. Don’t tell me you’ve lost your cook in a game of high-stakes poker and want to borrow mine?”
He relaxed a little, and stretched back in the chair, looking quizzically at her through the steam rising from the cup. “No. Though you’ve picked the right problem. Have you noticed anything odd about Mrs P.?”
She put her head on one side, and cogitated visibly for a moment.
“Well, yes, obviously.”
He looked up at her with a fiercely questioning expression; then, slightly too late, cottoned on to the idea that he was being teased.
“No, I meant more than normal. You must be about the only Muggle in the village she speaks to - I wondered if she’d said anything to you to suggest she was - well, not happy.”
Caitlin conscientiously tried to recall whether she had ever seen the Manor’s cook/housekeeper looking anything other than terminally morose, but failed miserably. “Not happy about what?” she hazarded. The answer came as a shock.
“Neville,” Draco said simply.
How the bloody hell can anyone be unhappy about Neville? If the world suddenly lost any concept of “decent”, “genuine” and “sweet” all they’d have to do would be to draw round him to get the template.
Caitlin’s voice was hesitant.
“She - ah - she isn’t doing something silly like getting moral scruples about you two, is she?”
Draco’s expression clearly indicated that the thought had never dreamed of crossing his mind.
“Moral scruples? Mrs P.? She’s worked for this family for 27 years, you know. And her mother worked for my grandparents, before that.”
“Ah. Well, I suppose that can’t be the answer, then.”
Caitlin, rather late, realised that she was probably looking and sounding somewhat gormless, and adjusted her expression to what she hoped conveyed Baffled-But-Searching-Diligently-For-Imaginative-Solutions. She tried a ranging shot against the conversational target.
“Well - what’s actually happening? Is she - er - getting a bit difficult with him, or something?”
Getting a bit difficult, in her own experience of employing staff in the guest house, was a handy portmanteau phrase which had, in its time, conveniently covered everything from religious mania to unscheduled pregnancy to multiple bigamy to developing a mindset which alternated between believing one was Napoleon and a conviction that one was in fact a continuous delta function.
Draco nodded solemnly. “Hasn’t said a word directly to him practically since I got back from France. Everything has to be relayed through me. But last night was the worst. He was having a salad with his steak - now don’t look at me like that. Neville makes absolutely sure that our Charolais herd lives a life of splendour and wonderment: cosseted, free range, pasture-fed, pesticide free - nothing to complain about at all -“
Caitlin sniffed. “Must make it even more of a shock for them when some bastard bobs up one day and says: “Oy, mate, I’m planning to shoot you and serve you medium-rare: would two-thirty be convenient?” then, mustn’t it?”
Draco was unmoved. “Every lifestyle has the defects of its qualities. Anyway, with meat like that Mrs P. would skin either of us if we asked for it more done than rare. Blue, in my particular case.”
Caitlin made her shudder as theatrically exaggerated as a lifetime’s practice could manage.
“You are quite sure there isn’t any vampire in your family tree?”
“Positive. In fact, I’ve only ever heard of one vampire in this village, and he wasn’t family and I’m pretty certain he wasn’t the type to have appealed to any of my ancestresses, either. So you can rule that out. I just like my meat runny.”
He drew a deep breath, and continued. “Anyway, she brought in the salad bowl and sort of pushed it at Neville - obviously she knows I don’t eat it - so he helped himself, and she went out, and we went on talking, and then he suddenly stopped talking altogether and looked down at his plate and went absolutely dead white. I thought he’d just spotted half a slug in it, or something. Anyway, he rushed off straight away and I’m pretty certain I heard him making himself sick. But then he came back, still looking a bit pale, and I asked him: was everything all right and he said, yes, sure and not to worry about it. But he wandered straight off down to the library after supper and when I went to find him a couple of hours later he must have had every herbal in the Manor out on the floor around him. Together with the rest of the salad, that he hadn’t eaten.”
Caitlin’s eyes widened. “Goodness.”
“So I asked him straight out: was there anything wrong with it? And he just looked at me and said: “Like the guy who said it’d been a good year for grouse; it all depends on which end of the gun you look at it from.” So I said, should I call Mrs P. and ask her about it, and his voice went all funny and he said, “No, that’s the last thing you ought to do.” And he hasn’t said a thing about it since, and neither has she, and it’s driving me mad.”
To emphasis the point he got up, paced moodily once or twice round the room, and flopped into the sofa in the far corner. As he did so his eye was caught by the TV that - though she had muted the volume - was still flickering unnoticed away to itself, as it had been when he had been announced. He gazed at it in total fascination: Caitlin, momentarily, was reminded of a puppy encountering snow for the first time.
“Good grief: what on earth’s going on there?” he breathed.
She turned to study it. It was a repeat, anyway, and the absence of sound made no difference to her essential grasp of events. Her voice was deliberately slow and patient.
“They’re living on a Hell-mouth, Draco.”
He looked at it for some moments longer. Then:
“God, you’d think that would totally bugger property values in the neighbourhood, wouldn’t you?” he said.
She laughed out loud.
“Heavens, Draco, you’ve no idea how refreshing your take on life is, after the airy-fairy Celtic twilight guff I have to put up with day in, day out from that lot.”
She indicated with her head in the general direction of the padded door that led through to the main bulk of the guesthouse.
“But of all the half-baked nonsensical types I have to be sweet to in this business, the current crop has to be the worst,” Caitlin continued rapidly on, before he could get a word in edgeways. “I know as things are at the moment I should be thanking heaven fasting that I’ve got the place full, but really!”
“They call themselves a Creative Fantasy Writing Course, but I’d say that the only thing creative about them is the lies they’ve been telling each other about how much of their work they’ve had published, and their biggest fantasy is that they can write anything that makes something like sense, given that none of them seem capable of grasping the basic rudiments of grammar and sentence structure, let alone the really sophisticated stuff like characterisation or plot.”
Draco, from the depths of his armchair, gestured languidly with his wand in the general direction of the kettle, and a freshly made cup of lemon and ginseng tea arrived to hover politely at Caitlin’s elbow, replacing the one she had allowed to grow cold during her tirade.
“Thank you,” she breathed. “Oh, god, I know it’s bad form to bitch about the punters, but sometimes I feel I have to let off steam, or explode. And this lot are the absolute bloody limit. Between them, they managed to come up with five allergies and four deep rooted moral objections simply to afternoon tea, yesterday. Oh, they’re awful! You can’t think!”
She snapped her fingers.
“And as for their so-called course docent - since, I gather calling him a tutor would be “undesirably hierarchical” -“
“What’s undesirable about a hierarchy?” Draco enquired in a baffled way. Caitlin snorted.
“I don’t think I can do better than commend to you Neville’s comment about grouse and guns, on that one. Anyway, they might call him a docent, but I call him a creep. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to find out he’d been kicked off the English faculty of some poly or other for feeling up the freshers. I could see him sizing up the strictly limited available talent before they’d done more than get their suitcases into the hall. And given half the people only come on these course in the hope of meeting a soul-mate and being dashed off their feet in an up rush of overmastering passion I should imagine he isn’t going to get the knee in the nuts he so richly deserves, either. Unless Lucy Moore decides to turn herself into the instrument of divine retribution on the evil-doer, in which case I, personally, will be cheering her to the echo.”
She took a sip of tea. “There’ll be blood on the mat by the end of the course, I can tell. There are all the signs of at least two cliques developing already - mind you, I should have realised there would be when some bloody imbecile just had to raise the subject of elves over supper on Saturday. Nothing splits a group of that sort quicker than a discussion of the old Fair Folk. You get the Tolkien groupies at the throats of the Border Minstrelsy gang in seconds.”
Draco raised an eyebrow. “Elves? Bunch of cold-blooded charismatic rapists with idiotic hairdos, so far as I know.”
Caitlin smiled somewhat grimly. “Score one for the Border minstrels, then.” She paused. “You mean you’ve met -?”
“Oh, god no. They’re much too snobbish to go round mixing with humans except when they’re on the pull. And from what I can tell, you don’t actually get to meet them even when they are on the pull. Definitely subscribers to the “Brace yourself, Bridget” school of foreplay, from what I’ve heard.”
“Draco - you will promise me you won’t go and fraternize with the punters, will you? I’ve got troubles enough as it is.”
He smiled lazily. “I can assure you that you have my word on it.”
She breathed a sigh of somewhat exaggerated relief.
“Anyway, thank god this evening we’ve packed them off to Cerne Abbas in a coach to “soak up the local mystical atmosphere” at the feet of the Giant. With a bit of luck they won’t be back till well after closing time.”
Draco raised both eyebrows pointedly. “Not until dawn, I’d lay odds, in the circumstances. Even though the temperature out there tonight would give the randiest of brass monkeys pause for serious thought. More snow coming, I reckon. God, you’ve just reminded me of the Ancient Runes field-trip school insisted on running to Cerne in fifth year.”
Caitlin could feel her own face disposing itself into a sardonic expression.
“Anyone who even thinks of organizing a co-educational school field-trip to Cerne must be at least a hundred and have no memory or imagination at all.”
“Oh, all of those things. It was bad enough when we actually were on the Giant itself - for one thing, it really made you realise just how sheltered most of your schoolmates’ lives had been up to then, poor sods - “
She grinned. Draco shrugged and continued,
“But then, on the trip back home, it degenerated into something between The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire and the worst teenage party you ever were at. God, I ended up fending off one unwanted pass with the immortally ill-chosen phrase: Lavender; I’m gay - but then, I wouldn’t snog you even if I weren’t. If I hadn’t had the presence of mind to cast a wildly illegal Memory Charm on her I’d have never lived that one down.”
He shuddered, visibly, and Caitlin suppressed a giggle. His voice and expression suddenly changed, became darker and more reflective.
“You know, there were 25 of us students on that trip.” He paused. “There are only 13 of us left now.”
Caitlin had to do something. The silence after that remark was assuming a weight of its own.
She got up and wandered over to the bureau drawer, rummaging inside the cluttered mass of snapshots, dance-programmes, theatre ticket stubs and such-like memorabilia that it contained. She threw her next comment back over her shoulder.
“It’s a pity you never got to meet my aunt. The one who left me this place. If she really was my aunt, of course.”
She found what she was looking for and returned to the middle of the room.
“She was in SOE, fighting the Nazis with the French Resistance, during the war. Her nickname was “la petite égorgeuse.” “
“And was she?”
“Oh yes. In both languages.”
She tossed the photograph onto the coffee table.
Draco turned it round and looked at it for a few moments. “I see what you mean. Something of a knockout if you happen to go for tiny ferocious brunettes. If she’d been one of us, and an Animaga, she’d have turned into a falcon, I expect. You know, she reminds me of someone, a bit.”
He looked at the photograph for a bit longer, and then shook his head. “No - it isn’t coming to me. Why do you say: “if she really was my aunt?” “
Caitlin shrugged. “Oh, well, I always seemed to have a lot more in common with her than I actually had with my mother. And Aunt Miranda wasn’t in the slightest bit the marrying brand, you know. So I just tended to wonder, that’s all. She never said, though. Not even in her will. But she was always fantastically generous to me, definitely above and beyond the bounds of auntly duty. She paid the fees at that ghastly nunnery I was theoretically educated at, for example. It was her old school. She told me that she expected I’d loathe it, but it’d do me good in later life to have a clear picture of just what I was rebelling against. And she said as well that if I talked and looked like the enemy, and knew how they thought, I’d have a better chance of slipping under their guard. Anyway, do you want me to do a bit of digging around in the village and see if I can get to the bottom of what might be biting Mrs P.? She does speak to people besides me, you know: I’ve seen her do it.”
He blinked at her abrupt change of direction.
“Do you think you could? I’d feel a lot happier if you could manage to find out what’s happening. If anyone can, I think you might be able to.”
She had to conceal her surprise at his sudden expression of confidence.
“Well, I’ll do my best. I do have a fair range of contacts. By now.” She laughed, suddenly. “You’d be amazed to find what it’s done for my reputation in this village, being known actually to be friendly with you two. I’m not sure if the impact is more like terror or respect. But people definitely see me as someone they can use to intercede for them with the Other Side, as it were. Especially since the current crisis began.”
Draco’s face suddenly lightened. “Oh, have you been getting that, too? Neville says he keeps being surprised ever since it started about how many discreet approaches he’s had via the pool team, to see if there’s anything we can do to help.”
“Magical charms to keep farms free of foot-and-mouth? Got to be more use than a few bales of straw soaked in Dettol, hasn’t it?”
“I’m sure it would be if the Ministry would let us do it. But sorry to dash your optimistic views of human nature, though: it seems to be curses that are guaranteed 100% effective against MAFF veterinary inspectors that are most in demand at the moment -“
She acknowledged the point with a grim smile. At that moment the phone rang. Draco gestured encouragingly with one hand, and she reached for it.
“Yes - hello - yes, speaking. What?”
There was an intense babble of explanation from the other end of the line. From the background noises she reckoned the call was coming from the public bar of a particularly noisy pub, and that from his state of relative incoherence phoning her had not been the caller’s first priority on arriving there. She had to ask him to backtrack and amplify several times, When she reckoned she had milked him of all potentially useful information she said: “Right. Stay where you are, and tell her I’ll be right over to collect her.”
She replaced the handset and gave a brief “huff” of exasperation and annoyance.
“Honestly! That was Alan, the imbecilic course docent of the group I was telling you about. Apparently one of the idiot women on the trip claims she saw something on the Giant which scared the life out of her -“
“See what I mean about over-sheltered lives?” Draco commented irrepressibly. Caitlin glared at him.
“Well, whatever it was has apparently completely given her the -“
Caitlin paused, in momentary confusion, caught sight of Draco’s pointedly raised eyebrows, and continued rather too rapidly on.
“Screaming heebie-jeebies, and the course leader does have enough residual common sense to work out that if she isn’t isolated from the herd soon she’ll set the whole over-suggestible mob of them off.”
She reached for the Drizabone that was hanging on the back of the door.
“So now I’ve got to drive over and collect her. And you were right.”
She jerked a thumb at the window. “It has started to snow again.”
Draco got to his feet and shrugged on his padded jacket. “Fancy a lift? The snow-ploughs hadn’t even got round to clearing last night’s fall from most of the back-roads by this afternoon. You’ll never make it to Cerne and back in your Golf if this lot turns out to be more than just a light dusting.”
“Well, I’d hardly call a Porsche the best hostile terrain vehicle going -“
She suddenly came to a stop.
“Well, I suppose come to think of it, though, yours might well be -“
“Is. I promise. We’ve been experimenting with new anti-skid charms, and it’s probably the safest all-weather vehicle in the county, by now. And if we did by any remote chance get stuck in a snow-drift, I’ve got an emergency Nimbus collapsible in the boot.”
Caitlin shuddered, elaborately. “Just so long as it isn’t on the return journey we get stuck in the snowdrift, then. I’d hate to have to explain that away to an over-excited Creative Fantasy Writing student who seems already to be going through a bout of hyperactive imagination.”
She snapped off the lights in the sitting room decisively. “OK, you’re on. And thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
They headed out through the staff entrance.
Jacqueline sipped, mechanically, the fizzy mineral water that had been put in front of her, and tried to block out the shrill palimpsest of sound thickening the air around her, her fellow-students each trying, it seemed, to stake their respective claims to having had the most genuine, recent, and horrific psychic experience and to drown out any rivals.
If I saw it, it was a ghost: if you saw it, it seems, it was Welsh rarebit late at night.
Not, of course, that she had the nerve to come out with a comment like that aloud. Still less tonight.
She shivered, again, as the picture of the dark hillside, the snow light cold in the moonlight, came vividly back to her.
In all its sudden, unexpected familiarity. And you strained your eyes, suddenly afraid of what you would see: those dark wolf shapes slinking along the edges of the patches of shade, until at a pre-arranged signal they rose into their true, terrifying, two-legged form, so that you recognised them. And screamed.
If only it could have been as clean and simple as indigestion. Or ghosts.
There was a sudden blast of cold air as the door to the street was flung open. The others were too intent on capping each other’s supernatural anecdotes to notice, but it was a relief for her to have something else to think about. She looked up and across the bar, and felt her mouth dry and her heart start to pound.
He stands on the threshold, between the bright lights of the room and the dark street outside, not crossing in, as yet. There is nothing surprising about that. She has seen that wary defensiveness too often to mistake it. His sort is never precipitate about entering possibly hostile terrain. His cold eyes inventory the room, noting exits, ambush points, potential cover for a fire-fight. Checking for threats. And then his glance looks across, and down; catches her intent, assessing look at him. He opens his mouth, as if to say something -
She made a muffled, gasping noise, and slumped forward. The blood rushed up to her ears; and the tightness in her chest absorbed all her attention. Breathing was suddenly the most difficult thing on this earth.
Caitlin, entering the pub in Draco’s wake, gave an expression of shocked concern. Jacqueline - not who I was expecting to be the problem, actually - looked as though she was dying at the table. Her eyes were spread wide, and she was clutching at her chest, grey skinned and gasping for air. The other course participants crowded around her - it was difficult for Caitlin to determine whether horror, concern, prurience or good copy was the main motive for their sudden activity.
“Panic attack,” Draco observed crisply. “Back room?”
The landlady, Caitlin was amused to notice, was instantly at his elbow, waving a way to clear the throng as she supported Jacqueline by the shoulders as she stumbled out of the bar. The other delegates, fortunately, fell back before their combined decisiveness. Caitlin, unrepentantly, felt in duty bound to slam the door of the back room in the teeth of the more shameless of the pursuing students.
In the peace of the small, closed office the landlady dropped Jacqueline - pragmatically but not without grace - onto the carpet, and tucked her into a recovery position.
“Can you take over from here?” she said. “I could phone you a doctor, but you’d probably be better letting her come to herself a bit, and then driving her quietly back, and getting Dr Howard to see to her at your place.”
Apparently taking silence for assent - and, Caitlin suspected, more disconcerted than she wanted to let on at being forced to occupy the same small space as Draco (who had assumed a bland posture against the wall, out of Jacqueline’s line of sight, and was uncharacteristically saying nothing) - the landlady bobbed neatly back out of the office and into the bar.
Caitlin, feeling somehow inadequate and intrusive, removed her guest’s shoes and unfastened the top few buttons on her shirt. Jacqueline waved one hand in a vague but apparently acknowledging gesture. Caitlin stroked her forehead reflexively, and started looking around for a glass, and water.
“Give her half an hour or so to recover,” Draco muttered. “I’ll be right back.”
He was gone.
On his return, he went straight to the bar and summoned the landlady to him with a flick of one eyebrow. Three or four locals - clearly ahead of him in the queue to be served - made aggressive noises in his general direction before being quietened by frantic elbow-prods and ankle-taps from those better informed. Once it had been made clear to them - apparently - what he was, if not precisely who, he smiled down the length of the bar. It was a bare-toothed, mirthless grin that left his eyes cold. They quailed back before it, as he had expected. But he would rather not think too hard about whom he had learned that particular trick from.
Especially not tonight.
When he had got their undivided attention he spoke.
“Actually, chaps, I’m not after a drink. Just two minutes conversation with your landlady.”
The landlady, evidently flustered, ducked under the flap at the end of the bar without bothering to raise it, and said:
“What is it?”
Consciously, before speaking to her, he took a moment to calm his racing heart and steady his nerves. What he had seen or - he devoutly hoped - not seen on the hillside out there seemed to be having a wholly unreasonable effect on him. It was monstrous. It was absurd. It could not be accepted for a moment as even a theoretical possibility. He would not accept it. He would die sooner.
Recent Events had taught him discipline, at least, it seemed. He made himself deliberately bland, calling upon a technique learned in Death Eater days: make your personality no more than a chalk outline on a pavement, so that you can strike more readily and the more unseen.
Blandman, at whom he looked but who was located at several removes from him, said with cool politeness:
“Please let Caitlin know - ask her to come out and have a word, in fact - that I’m ready to take her and her guest back to the guesthouse, as you suggested.”
The landlady - living testament either to the persistence of oral traditions or to his incompetence at the spell (or to family likeness? a traitorous voice in the corner of his mind suggested) - bowed her head and murmured submissively (but out of earshot, he hoped, of the crowded bar),
“I will, my lord.”
Caitlin emerged looking unexpectedly flustered. Draco made a sign towards her, and they made their way over to a table in the corner. Its two previous occupants - obviously catching a hint from the landlady - scrambled to their feet and drifted unprotestingly away as Draco and Caitlin approached. Even the course participants somehow restrained their curiosity enough to limit themselves to craning eager necks from the vicinity of the bar, rather than interrupting. Draco deliberately seated himself with his back to them.
“Are you all right?” she demanded.
He raised an eyebrow. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, you certainly aren’t looking your normal - ah, er - I mean, you’re coming over a lot less assertive than you usually do.”
“Good. Looks like it must be working after all.”
She plainly did not want to explore the implication of that one. “Find any footprints, or whatever it was you were looking for up on the Giant?”
Why on earth should she think that anything I might be looking for would leave footprints?
God help us all if what I was looking for could leave footprints.
She must have caught his expression, because her face changed, became sardonic.
“It did occur to me - curmudgeonly type that I am - that, since Jacqueline isn’t the one I’d have betted on to go in for massive fits of self-dramatising hysteria, one of the others might have deliberately done something to scare her. I don’t get the impression that many of them are the nicest people one might choose to meet.”
He put his head on one side. “Hm - possible, but -“
He gave it some more thought, and then said, without turning round,
“Tell me, who’s the thick-set type in his late forties, with the short black hair and the appalling leather jacket? Second from the end of the bar? Drinking a pint and looking as though he’s planning to pick a fight with it?”
Caitlin looked over his shoulder. “Oh. Interesting. Yes. You can spot them, can’t you? He’s our star man, our actual published writer. Admittedly, it was a couple of short stories, a decade ago, but even so -“
“He writes under the name “Ken Hemsworth”. But I reckon it’s as fake as his accent.”
“Cod-Yorkshire. Transparent bid for a bit of cobbled street-cred. You can see the RP reefs poking up through it. But goes with his deprived-child autobiography, if you listen to him talk.”
“Hm. Perhaps I ought to get Neville on the job. He’d know the right questions to ask to check him out. And he’s got no time for fake Northerners. Well, fake anything, really. Perhaps we get on because though I may be a bastard, at least I’m a authentic bastard.”
Caitlin looked quizzically at him. “Hm. I’m sure that must be it. I don’t suppose, by some remote chance, you’ve read Mary McCarthy’s The Group?”
He shook his head, wordlessly.
“So, then, if I were to say in some respects our Ken comes over as a dead ringer for Harald it wouldn’t mean much to you?”
“No. Nothing at all.”
“Ah. Pity. Well, anyway, take it I don’t care for him greatly. He has a remarkable ability to suck the joy out of the atmosphere around him, and I suspect any woman unwise enough to get mixed up with him wouldn’t have much of her self-esteem left by the time she managed to extract herself. Which is why it’s a pity Nicci seems to have latched on to him. There’s a girl with all the self-preservation instincts of a lemming.”
Draco thought for a moment. ” You know, I think I may have to withdraw my promise not to fraternize. Soon. If you really want to get to the bottom of this. And - trust me on this one - if he was behind this, then there’s a lot more to him than meets the eye.”
Caitlin nodded, self-evidently fascinated. “So - did you see what scared Jacqueline?”
The question was, suddenly chilling. He knew his face had turned carven but could not help it. “No. Though I - ah - now know what I’d have seen if I’d been standing looking over her shoulder at the time. Anyway, forget that. Did you notice that she didn’t actually lose it completely until I appeared in the doorway? She was scared before, but it was only when she spotted me that she panicked. That’s - interesting.”
Caitlin’s voice sounded remote and thoughtful. “How come?”
“Well - ” It was, abruptly, not at all easy to mention it. And he was most certainly not planning to go into details. He gulped. “I’d have thought she was too - ah - alive. To have experienced the sort of thing I think she might have been reminded of when she saw me earlier. But anyway, if you’re planning for us all to get home tonight we’ve got a major problem. Because I can tell you, the way she was looking at me earlier you won’t get her out of this pub in my company without one hell of a lot of persuasion. And I can assure you that while you’d be entirely welcome to borrow the car to get her home in, I really don’t think it would be much use to you without me.”
Caitlin looked at him speculatively. “No engine, by any chance?”
“Of course the Porsche has got an engine.” His voice, he knew, was high and aggrieved. He paused. ” How else would we manage to make the right sorts of noises when we’re burning someone off at the lights?”
He saw Caitlin grinning at him, and shrugged.
“It’s the lack of keys I suspect you’d have the trouble with. Last summer, when Neville had lost them for the umpteenth time we eventually thought why bother? And we never have since. But Neville tells me Muggles need -?”
“Ah. I see. So how do you suggest I talk her into accepting a lift from you?”
“Well - why not introduce me to her properly? Leaving out anything in the least interesting.”
“Ah. That leaves me with giving her your name, and the fact that you live in the village. And even the name could do with a bit of editing. And how’s being told nothing whatsoever about you going to reassure her?”
“Well, I suggest you mention that you’ve known me some time and I’ve not attacked you yet. Oh, and you could emphasise my youth, I suppose? That might help.”
“Hm. If I come out with: Here’s my friend. He’s twenty. He’s planning to drive you home in the dark over snow-covered roads in his souped -up sports car and she looks reassured by that build-up, I’ll agree that there’s something uncanny going on.”
“Tell her it could be worse. Could be Neville driving. Anyway, I suggest we get her out of here fast, before someone else tells her anything about me.”
Jacqueline had started to come to herself. As ever - and despite those cool, professional reassurances - her dominant emotion was disgust at herself for allowing herself to give way, coupled with the reflexive snap of fear at the recollection that she must have been so exposed, so vulnerable, for so long. There were many among those she had once known who would not have let such an opening go unexploited.
She sipped at the glass of water and strove to summon up the mask of mild unobtrusiveness that these days she sought to interpose between herself and the world.
The door opened, and Caitlin half-entered. In her student days Jacqueline had supported herself by various jobs in hotels and was under few illusions as to just how popular she was likely to be with the proprietor of the guest house. Still, her expression was pleasant enough.
“Oh, good. You seem to be looking a lot better, judging by the colour. Look, can I introduce you to a friend of mine, who’s going to give both of us a lift back to the village, without your needing to wait for the coach?”
Without pausing for response or acknowledgment (Jacqueline was entirely familiar with such omissions, even from those who meant well) Caitlin turned her head. “Come in,” she said. A slight, blond young man followed her into the room, closing the door with a quick backwards tap of his heel as he sidled through it, moving quickly aside to stand against the wall.
Noting the elaborate care with which the new arrival avoided getting between her and any of the escape routes from the room, and the precise calculation of every move to avoid projecting any sort of threat, Jacqueline’s memories rose up again.
One surely has to know far more than one ought about creating fear, to pre-empt the apprehensions of others so effectively.
Caitlin’s voice was brisk. “Jacqueline, I’d like you to meet Draco Malfoy. Draco’s an old friend and neighbour of mine.”
A part of her brain cynically catalogued the old friend (for the boy was in his very early twenties at the oldest, surely) under the heading of “General flannel: intended for the reassurance of the emotionally fragile” even as she scolded herself into conscious appreciation of the tact which had led Caitlin to make the remark. And then the true oddity of the introduction struck her.
“Malfoy? As in the village?”
Caitlin compressed her lips with amusement. “Draco might possibly be too polite to mention it, but I rather think he’d say that the other way round.”
The blond boy grinned. “At least ma used to say that this way she knew there would be two words on the envelope she could be sure I’d spell right when I o- wrote home from school.”
Jacqueline made her voice sound detached and politely interested.
“Good heavens. Imagine having a village named after one.”
“Oh, not after me. Indirectly, I suppose, after a truly repellent thug who was best buddies with William Rufus, actually. I just happen to be descended from him.”
“Oh, I see. A very old family.”
The blond boy grimaced.
“A practically completely dead family, as it happens. Doubtless all to the good. Anyway, are you ready to move? The car’s just outside.”
She nodded, and stood up. They were actually at the pub door - it seemed someone had persuaded the landlady to let them out the back way, so they did not have to brave the bar again, a small mercy for which Jacqueline was profoundly grateful - when the blond boy gave a sharp exclamation, looking down at her feet.
“I think you’re going to be awfully chilly.”
She looked down and realised that her shoes were back in the pub’s back room, and that she was about to step onto the snow covered cobbles of the hill outside the pub with only her tights to protect her feet.
“I’ll get them, ” Caitlin muttered, and ducked back inside. Jacqueline took the opportunity to cast a covert glance under shielded eyes at the carved, disconcertingly androgynous pale face next to her, and shook herself mentally.
A nicely brought-up English public schoolboy. Slightly built, and unassertive to the point of effeminacy. And certainly not at all what I thought I saw in the doorway.
The drive home was reassuringly uneventful. Jacqueline was withdrawn, and Caitlin, stretching out in the wholly unnatural and deeply welcome space of the rear seats, could only be grateful for her quietness.
She disentangled her guest with practised ease in the hallway, saw her safely through into the residents’ lounge, where - offers of medical help being declined - she settled her with a mug of hot chocolate and a three volume eighteenth century novel of surpassing tedium which she assumed would prove an natural sedative. On her return to her private sitting room Caitlin raised an enquiring eyebrow at Draco.
“Nightcap? I presume you aren’t going to have any problems getting home, one way or the other?”
He gave a brief assenting nod.
“Well. An interesting evening.”
“An interesting day,” Caitlin snapped, more irritably than she meant.
Draco looked up, raising his eyebrows in invitation. Go on. She shrugged.
“Oh, it’s just been weird. Today’s what - Monday? Well, fortunately this mob decided that they wanted a bonding session at lunch time, which meant we could leave them a few plates of sandwiches and crisps and fruit and such, and leave them to it. So I went off to do some jobs in the village, and nipped into the Rose and Crown for lunch.”
“Well, I was sitting quietly in a corner with a plate of mushroom stroganoff - not brilliant, but at least they’re bothering to make the effort now - when a bloke I’d never seen before in my life came up and started talking to me. And he seemed to know who I was, and all about the guest house - he was asking me questions about how I was getting on with the business in the current climate, and I told him that given how things were going, it made me realize just how lucky I’d been to insist that the guest house was going to be strictly organic and vegetarian all those years ago. At which point he looked at me and sort of purred, “Oh, I’m sure luck had nothing to do with it. I’m sure that you’ve got even more talents than you suspect you have. There’s no such thing as luck - there’s just having the potential within you and knowing how to unleash it.” “
“Golly. Cheesy or what?”
Caitlin thought about that one. “Well, yes, with the benefit of hindsight, deeply. But the weird thing was, at the time it sounded absolutely natural and self-evident - on one level. And it was almost as though I was being offered an opportunity I’d regret all my life turning down, if that’s what I chose to do. Even though I had no idea what I was being offered. And then - well, I know it sounds rather silly, but it’s how I felt - I suddenly got the nastiest of feelings about the whole thing, and when I looked across at his face, I thought for a split second I could see through to the skull underneath it, and I just got this awful sense of - of emptiness. And he must have seen my expression change, because he got up and said, “But I can see I’m going to have difficulties in convincing you of how much more than yourself you could be if you only let yourself. So be it,” and left. At which point I realised that it hadn’t even occurred to me to ask him what his name was. And I wasn’t sure whether I was having a fit of over-active imagination, or if I’d just dodged something rather nasty, or if I really had missed the opportunity of a lifetime.”
“Well, if I were you, I’d think about options one and two, and skip three. In my experience, the sort of people who offer you rather unspecific opportunities of a lifetime generally assume that the lifetime concerned is going to be somewhat - short.”
She nodded. “I think it helped that I’ve got to know you two. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he was - well, from your world, or something similar, anyway. He had that slight air of not quite being in the right place that you sometimes have when you’re in the village. But I think his big mistake was laying all the “you could be so extraordinary” stuff on so thick. I mean, you’d have to be awfully young or hideously insecure or both to fall for that line, wouldn’t you think?”
Draco paused, thoughtfully.
“I don’t know.”
He put his head on one side. “I’ve seen you at the bridge table defending a couple of slams against my mother that should have been practically lay down. Once might have been luck, but I can’t think of that many people who’ve successfully bluffed her more than once. You’ll have to give me a bit more to go on if you don’t simply want me to say that it sounds like fair comment to me.”
“Well, yes I agree I have heard the: “have you ever noticed that there was something really unusual about you” line before. Admittedly, I’ve always imagined that it was a step on the way towards talking me into bed -“
“Well, can’t say anything about the bloke in the pub, naturally,” Draco breathed, “But I think you can safely assume I’m as pure as the driven snow.”
Caitlin looked at him under her defiantly unplucked eyebrows.
“Well, we’ll leave that as: “I’m sure that that one doesn’t figure on your own particular hidden agenda,” shall we? Actually, now you remind me, he did look a bit like you, as a matter of fact - “
She surveyed him critically for a moment.
“Well - not the bone structure, actually. That was heavier. He didn’t have your cheekbones. And he was a good bit older than you, too. Hard to tell how much, but not more than seven or so years younger than me, at the most flattering estimate. He was blond, though - though a bit darker than you are, come to think of it. But some of his mannerisms were very familiar - and the eye shape and colour - “
Noticing that Draco had gone pale took practice. Caitlin had had plenty. She paused, and then said:
“Do you recognise him?”
“Well, as a matter of fact you just seem to have described my father.” He swallowed, convulsively. She gave him a quick look, and moved across to a bureau. The oak-flap dropped down to reveal a couple of bottles and some glasses behind it. She sloshed the whisky into one of them generously, adding no mixer. She pushed the tumbler across to Draco, who downed half in one gulp.
“Thanks. Sorry. Not a happy subject. Well, assuming Necromancy is right out -“
There was a disconcertingly hesitant note in her guest’s voice that suggested that, for him, this was not necessarily a foregone conclusion. Draco coughed, and made a curious wriggling movement with one hand.
Caitlin pretended to have noticed nothing. Draco continued, his voice determinedly matter-of-fact.
“Anyway, I could probably give you the family name of that guy. If he’s a wizard, that is. With an accuracy of about one in three, or thereabouts.”
She must have looked questioningly at him, because he gestured expressively with one beautiful hand. “Well, what else would you think? This village has a six hundred year old tradition of incest and droit de seigneur. Any locally born wizard flapping around here almost certainly has more Malfoy blood than I do.”
He looked thoughtfully at her for a few minutes. “You know, there is one thing that is really unusual about you, and never mind the bullshit, and that’s how you reacted to me - to us - from the first. Neville’s had a hell of a sight more experience with Mug- with non-magical people than I have, and he said the same. It’s really rare for someone like you, who finds out about our world, not just to react in sheer panic and run, or pretend nothing odd’s going on at all, or to desperately try to find some Muggle explanation for it all. The only other one who even came close was Melanie, actually - “
She knew her face must have twisted up, because he glanced up at her. “No news, then, I take it?”
“Oh well, no doubt she’ll reappear in her own good time. Anyway, rather than worrying about things you can’t do anything about, finding out what’s what with Mrs P. and Neville would be greatly appreciated, thanks. Speaking of which, I ought to be getting back to the Manor. Neville will be thinking I’ve been grabbed by a dragon snatch-squad by now.”
He tossed down the rest of his drink, got to his feet, shrugged on his jacket and was at the door before he turned. “Caitlin?”
“Had tonight’s trip to Cerne been planned since before they got here?”
She shook her head. “No. At least - the evenings when they’ve been going out have been set, and the coaches booked, but where they go to is supposed to be decided consensually on the day - to encapsulate the prevailing mood and dynamics. Alan - the docent came out to tell me it was Cerne at about quarter to six this evening - I don’t suppose anyone would have known that was where they were going till 5.30 at the earliest. Certainly not the coach driver - he was bitching like hell about not knowing where he was likely to be heading to. Why do you ask?”
His voice was remote, thoughtful. “It’s just - Caitlin, look, if you were planning an excursion to see a famous figure cut out of a chalk hillside - would you honestly chose at night, in a snow-storm as the best time to do it?”
He was gone before she could respond. She sat staring at the green baize door in silence for a long time.